Somewhere on the internet there’s a photo of me at a gargantuan beer festival. In this photo I’m young, and I’m sitting with my friends who are also young. They’re laughing and waving their beers and cigarettes in time with the polka music. My face is on the table, hands clasped above my head, and I’m praying for death.
The cruel universe did not kill me that night. Some of my friends hustled me out when the cops arrived. We journeyed hence with bail money, and then on to the living room floor of some guy’s apartment, where I slept the writhing sleep of the stupid. The next morning my mouth tasted like the inside of a wino’s shoe. My hideous backache was explained when I rolled off of the giant telephone upon which I’d been sleeping. Really, kids, they were as big as an ink-jet printer.
I’ve never seen this photo on the internet. But I know it exists, so it’s almost certainly out there. Our entire existence is online now, or will be once either Google or Facebook has stabbed the other in the heart and taken over.
A few job recruiters have recently advised me to sanitize my online presence. It seems the first thing a prospective employer will do is Google me, and if anything even a little weird shows up then they’ll toss my resume like it was on fire. So, I am attempting to scrub all the internet cracks and crannies I can find in an effort to wipe away the oddest bits of my life. It’s not that there’s anything out there that I’d be ashamed to show my granny, but I can’t be sure how persnickety employers are.
I feel like a bit of a light-weight for scurrying around behind myself like a cartoon mouse with a mop. However, I don’t think employers are doing anything wrong by searching for me online, or even by judging me. When I put something on the internet, it’s like I went to the mall, stood on a trash can, and screamed it as loud as I can. In front of a video camera that plays it back forever.
So I shall hie myself hence unto the very bowels to the internet, there to expunge all attestation of my prurient conduct. And feel kind of like a weenie.
Because I am the best husband in the world, I recorded a Disney film on our DVR and left it there for my wife to find when she went to watch “True Blood.” I admit it wasn’t a premeditated act, but that doesn’t invalidate my best-husband status.
You see, Friday night while my wife slept I sat on the couch watching 13 Assassins. I simultaneously scanned the guide for upcoming programs because I can’t just look at the TV like a regular person, and I noticed that the film Brave would be playing at 5:20 AM. I thought, What would the best husband in the world do? Within moments I’d scheduled the recording and returned to my festival of samurai disembowelings.
My wife giggled when she discovered the recording. Well, that’s probably a lie. I wasn’t there, and she hasn’t giggled more than a dozen times in recent memory. She’s just not a giggly girl. But she did express great happiness and appreciation for my husbandly prowess.
Then I mentioned to her the vicious, eye-gouging, internet-shredding riot that erupted when Disney made the movie’s protagonist, Merida, an “official” Disney princess. The character’s elevation to “official” status wasn’t controversial, but the makeover art Disney gave her caused heads to fly off. I won’t go into detail, other than to say they redrew the character to match the artistic style of the older official princesses, and at the same time they wiped out lots of her tomboy individuality. And they took about ten inches off her waist, I guess because an official princess can’t be proportioned like an official real person.
After an internet shelling that made the Battle of Verdun look like On Golden Pond, Disney relented and dropped the new art. I understand their need to make the art consistent, but I think some of the changes kind of sucked. Check them out for yourself:
I don’t want to get all spun up about the changes, but when I was looking for a makeover photo to show my wife I stumbled onto something else. I found a number of backlash comments slamming the movie, the heroine, director Brenda Chapman, and all the damned whiners who whined in their whining voices about the makeover. Here’s one example, with the commenting lady’s name omitted:
“Ms. Chapman could not finish this film herself. It was Disney who made it and it should be Disney that is championed. In the super hero line up of princesses- yes the wonderful heroines of films we love such as Snow White, Mulan, Belle etc. all had braver story lines than Merida who poisoned her mother and just felt kinda bad about it. The character was drawn in this clip art by a woman and Merida was drawn to match the world of the characters who were created as early as the 1930’s. To bring them all into the same world they needed to be drawn a bit differently than they appeared in the film. Perhaps Disney should remove Merida from the princess line up- just like they removed Brenda.”
– A Person Who Is Quite Unhappy About All This
I didn’t want to dismiss these objections just because they seemed kind of spiteful. Maybe this person has some real insight. So I considered her argument for a bit, which seemed to revolve around the story and the character being lousy compared to previous Disney films. Then I examined some of those classic films, extracting the plot and moral of the story for each, so I could compare them to Brave for myself.
The most beautiful girl in the kingdom runs away when the Wicked Queen tries to rub her out. The girl cooks and cleans for seven short guys until the Queen tries to kill her again. The short guys stick her comatose body inside a glass box and set it beside the road as if it were the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. She lays there until a handsome prince comes along and plants one on her, waking her up. They fall in love.
Moral: It pays to be beautiful, lucky, and handy in the kitchen.
A beautiful girl’s widowed father marries a vile harpy and her two ugly daughters, and then he dies. The harpy and her daughters treat his beautiful girl like ass-crust. Meanwhile, the king prepares a party to find his handsome son a wife, and he invites every girl in the kingdom. The bill for punch will be murder. Some handily dexterous mice sew the girl a pretty dress so she can go to the party, then her awful step-sisters destroy it, and then a fairy magically sends the girl to the party anyway, where the prince falls hard for her. After some magical mishaps, the prince tracks her down using her shoe. They fall in love.
Moral: It pays to be beautiful, nice to rodents, and have supernatural beings helping you.
A snubbed evil sorceress curses an infant princess to die when she first touches a spinning wheel. Rather than just destroying all the spinning wheels in the land, three good fairies change the curse so that the princess will just fall asleep upon spinning-wheel-contact. They take her to the forest, where she grows into a beautiful princess. She meets a handsome prince in the woods, and they fall in love. The evil sorceress brings the hammer down on her curse, knocking the princess into a coma. The prince then kills the evil sorceress and wakes the princess with a kiss. They continue to be in love.
Moral: Don’t piss off evil sorceresses. And of course it pays to be beautiful.
A willful princess so badly hates the idea of being married off against her wishes that she breaks the rules, defies her father, destroys property, and casts a spell on her mother, which turns the nagging woman into a bear. The princess realizes she screwed up and looks for a way to de-bear her mother, having some heartwarming moments with mom along the way. She at last finds a way to break the spell, contritely offers to marry whomever she’s told to marry, and risks her life to help her clan prevail in one of the giant killer bear attacks that had recently become so common. Everyone agrees that children don’t have to be paired up like show poodles, and the princess spends the afternoon riding horses with her mom.
Moral: You don’t deserve to be your own person if you only think about yourself.
After considering all of that, I’ll tell you right now which one of these girls I’d want to live happily ever after with. But what do I know? I’m just the best husband in the world.
Tired eyes? Looked at too many ugly things today? Listen to this post instead of reading it!
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This morning I walked out of my bedroom and into a linguistic booby trap every bit as dodgy as pungi sticks smeared with excrement. My wife sprang the trap, which isn’t all that surprising. I don’t find many other people besides her outside my bedroom before breakfast.
My wife stood at the vanity, holding lipstick in her right hand and a plain red business card in her left. The card was blank except for a few words in her handwriting, which is as legible as hieroglyphics scratched out by a turkey smoking hashish. She waved the card and gave me a significant look before gazing back at the mirror. She said, “I wrote it down just in case you wanted to know about the other ones. There are two other ways to set it up, but I don’t know which one will make you happy.”
I wondered about her definitions of the words “it,” “one,” and “ways.” I went ahead and wondered about her definition of “happy” while I was at it. Since I didn’t have enough information to say something stupid, never mind something useful, I waited.
She went on, “I know we have some time, but my part is figured out, so you just need to decide on your part. We don’t have that much time, so I figured I’d better tell you about it now.”
I didn’t even try to understand that. I just catalogued words so that when any one pronoun got defined then the whole message would crystallize like a catalyst creating a snowflake. I nodded a little and waited for the narrative to continue.
My wife looked at the card and said, “It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, especially the one I picked. You may decide you want more, but I don’t think we’ll need it since there’s probably a bar on every street corner.”
I narrowed my eyes at my wife, the woman who turns the consistency of motor oil when she drinks one fuzzy navel. I decided that I might have to ask what the heck she was talking about, but then she saved me by laying the business card on the vanity red-side down. The card’s other side read “Verizon,” our cell phone provider.
That semantic payload illuminated her entire message:
We plan to leave the country soon.
My wife has determined how to make her phone and iPad work overseas.
There are other options though, so she wants me to call about my own telephone and iPad, since she knows I’m a contrary son of a bitch.
But really, who needs cellular data when every bar and café has free wifi?
(Subtext: I can smoke weed in Amsterdam if I want, but she’d just get a headache and be unable to talk for a week, so she’ll be shopping for scarves and teacups.)
I smiled at my wife, as proud of my comprehension as any well-trained labradoodle. She did not say, “Good boy,” or anything that sounded like that. She gazed down from the innate moral high ground possessed by those who have jobs and said, “They have to send me a phone so it had better be done today, but I’m leaving in a few minutes and don’t know if I’ll be late, so you’ll take care of it, won’t you?” Of course I said okay.
I planned to execute my cell phone task with the brutal precision of Sherman marching through Georgia. Yet the next 90 minutes of my life resembled a fourth-grade kickball game rather than a precise military campaign that would leave the South psychically scarred for 150 years.
The people I spoke to at Verizon were friendly, knowledgeable, cooperative, and yearning to help me to the extent that my own lack of preparedness allowed. Which was almost not at all. Juanita told me everything I needed to know, including that I wasn’t an authorized user on our account. (My wife went with Verizon first and then sucked me in.)
Since I was logged in to our account right there on the dang website, Juanita asked if I knew our special, secret billing code, which would let her make me an authorized user. I had no idea. She encouraged me to give it a go and said she had confidence that I could guess it if I tried hard. I tried hard and failed every time.
I couldn’t call my wife. She’s a court reporter and can’t just take calls. “Just hold that thought, Your Honor, my husband is calling to tell me what a dope he is.” I sent her a text and an email pleading for help, but she didn’t respond. She was clearly busy documenting how some lawyer was calling another lawyer an asshole. At that point Juanita could do nothing else for me, and she tried to cheer me up as we ended the call.
I scrutinized the website for non-obvious avenues that Verizon may have left available for loyal but simple-minded customers. There were none. I went to the “Make Your Foolish Husband An Authorized User” screen, and I spent 30 minutes trying to crack it using guile, guesswork, and rage.
I really, really didn’t want my wife to come home and find that I’d failed to get this done. I might as well be sitting up in bed eating bon-bons when she arrived.
At last, some shadowed recess of my subconscious vomited forth the secret password. I was in! I set myself up as an Authorized User, and Verizon sent me a text with a new password. I logged on, and the website presented me with an enormous page of empty boxes I was required to fill. It included picking another new password, a security question, a personal security phrase, and a security image from a gallery of several hundred lovely photos. I am not kidding. Despite the time it took to fill all this out, I felt a bit giddy from all the security goodness that we were setting up around my account.
Then I clicked submit, after which the site asked me to log on. And it rejected me for a bad password. I tried again. No luck. And again, only to fail. The site locked me out. That’s when I got really mad.
After requesting a new password, I went through the whole process again, filling in all the required boxes and the fortress of security questions. It rejected me again.
Like a fool I went through the whole thing one more time. Yet more rejection. It felt like high school.
Then I realized that although the website hated me, Juanita had been nice to me. And now I had our special, secret billing password. I called Verizon, forgot my wife’s login password (necessary now for some reason), and stalled the whole process when I transposed digits in her social security number. Patricia pitied me and let me try again as if she were running some remedial spelling bee.
At last I had provided all the required passwords, codes, identifications, and challenges. If we’d been on video chat I’m sure there would have been hand signals. Patricia took care of everything I needed in a happy, efficient way. We declared victory and told each other how great we were.
Ten minutes later my wife texted me our special, secret billing password, which of course she’d told me about weeks before. I was able to reply, “No problem! It’s all done now!”
A little self-respect is nice. Besides, it’s not as if I’m just sitting around the house doing nothing. If I hurry I can scoop the cat litter before she gets home.
Writing brings out the mental illness in me. My wife can testify to this.
I’m in control of my behavior almost all the time. As Mark Twain said, “For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.” If I wake up to find my brain mired like a mammoth in tar, I can trick my brain into sucking itself free and stomping onwards across the plains. I rarely buy extravagant, useless things, because I have a rule. If I want to buy something that costs more than a couple of hundred dollars, I can’t buy it until I think about it for at least six months. I almost always follow that rule. Almost.
Judiciously applied chemicals are my friends. Free range chemicals and alcohol are not welcome in the home of my brain, apart from the occasional tequila shot or pomegranate martini. Come on, I’m not a nun or anything. But my best friend is me acting the way I want to feel, no matter how my brain tells me I feel, or at least doing my best to create the outward signs of sanity.
It works pretty well at this point in my life.
My wife refrains from trying to convince, trick, or bribe me into not behaving like a crazy person. It’s my job to take care of all this. She’s happy to help if I ask, and she demonstrates philosophical acceptance when I suddenly fill up the office closet with 30 gallons of bottled water, or when without warning I decide we need some more cats. Not only is she tolerant, she’s smart. If she tried to manage all this for me, I’d probably explode like a hand grenade.
Writing screws all this up. Well, not all writing causes problems. I can write a thousand words, declare success, and smile as I move on to something else. It’s the big projects that make me crazy. I’ve written three novels in the past three years, and the insanity they create goes like this.
I get an idea for something I want to write. It’s the best idea for a book that anyone’s had in the past 100 years, or maybe ever. I’m so excited that I talk to my wife about it almost every minute we’re together. I lay awake thinking about it and even consider waking my wife up in the middle of the night to talk about the greatness that is my idea. This goes on for about three days.
I begin the planning and research required to bridge the chasm between having an idea and writing words. I realize that my idea is rubbish. It’s less creative than a bucket of vanilla pudding. If brought to reality, it would be less popular than asphalt-flavored baby food. I feel shame. The only reason I keep working is that I talked it up so much to my wife I’d be embarrassed to never write a word of the thing. This goes on for about a month.
I start writing the first draft, expecting that after one chapter I can honorably surrender to the fact that my idea was horrible. After the first thousand words I find that I’m amusing myself, and I start to feel better about the project. I read the first chapter to my wife. She doesn’t say anything bad about it, which confirms my growing suspicion that it’s a work of magnificence. I begin laughing and hooting like a fool as I write, and I find I’d rather write than eat or sleep. This goes on until I finish the first draft, or about two to three months.
I put the manuscript aside to cool, planning to begin editing in about six weeks. Within 24 hours I realize that I was engulfed by irrational euphoria this whole time, and in fact my manuscript isn’t fit to wipe the ass of a sweaty heroin addict living in a ditch in Bangkok. I try to put this debacle behind me and concentrate on ideas for my next project, but I can only generate enough motivation to watch Saving Private Ryan and eat pie. This goes on for about two months.
Some grisly sense of obligation forces me to open the manuscript and pretend I’ll edit it before I trash it and funnel my creative urge into learning the ukulele. After reading three pages I can’t believe I’ve forgotten how brilliant it is. I perform several rounds of edits like one of those yipping dogs that never stop to sleep. I’m afraid that if I take a day off then the magical spell will be broken and I’ll once again see that the manuscript is just a snap-toothed yokel with mismatched shoes. This goes on for about six weeks.
The manuscript is finally as good as it’s going to get without an editor. I begin writing query letters, synopses, overviews, biographies, and the other artifacts that agents and publishers want to see. I become profoundly convinced that any agent would be more impressed if I just sent her an envelope full of fish guts. I grit my teeth and push on. I’ve come too far now. I’ll just send out the queries and then take my beating in cowed embarrassment.
Then it’s time to start a new project. And even though it means starting the cycle of crazy all over again, I don’t mind all that much. Not everybody get to experience three days of knowing that their book idea is absolutely the most perfect and radiant idea of the last century. It feels great. It’s entirely worth the subsequent months of the despair when you understand just how appalling your idea in fact was.
Last night I looked up from writing my novel synopsis and eating peanut butter cookies, and I realized that this blog has achieved a phenomenal milestone. It has existed for 660 days. The significance may not punch you in the face right away, so I’ll explain. The numeral 660 is the area code for Sedalia, Missouri. That town is only a two hour drive from Branson, Missouri. I visited Branson once. I think it’s pretty much how Las Vegas would look if it were built by the cast of Hee Haw, and yet the place entertained me in spite of myself. Ergo, milestone. Don’t you feel silly that you didn’t see it for yourself?
In celebration, I devoted a few minutes to thinking about the posts in this blog, and the number of posts (176) made it hard to keep them straight in my brain. If my tentacular mass of prior posts confuses me, then it probably confuses more recent regular readers, not to mention folks who stumble across the blog.
And I don’t know about you, but when I find an interesting blog with a long history, I’m puzzled about how to locate the parts of that history I might be most interested in. I know that’s what categories and tags are for, but what does it really mean when a post is tagged “camel”? How to ride one? How to raise them? How do they taste roasted? Do you prefer regular or menthol? It would be nice if the blogger would do some extra work for me. I have my own work that needs to be done and cookies waiting to be eaten.
A quick survey revealed that while this is my general humor blog, it does often follow certain themes. Creativity, marriage, work, family, fear and confidence are common themes. In addition, 33 posts mention movies, 35 posts mention death, 17 posts include strong profanity, 7 posts mention snot, and immersion blenders figure prominently in 2 posts. Cats appear in a full 100 of my posts.
Okay, this is a perplexing mess, and I’m cutting through it right now. I’ve extracted eight general groups of posts and a few posts from each group. You can find them below, along with a sentence or two describing each group to help you decide whether those posts might be interesting to you in any way at all.
In order to understand a lot of my posts, it helps to understand my wife. This group of posts describes about 10 percent of her being, but that’s the portion she employs daily, not the 90% capable of sinking you like the Titanic. We’ve discussed getting t-shirts that say “Bill will make you cry. Kathleen will make you disappear.”
Employment and unemployment seem to weigh on everyone these days. In these posts I touched on employment challenges, with a subtext of living in a ditch and eating dirt, rejected by everyone with more than four teeth, and forced to count my lice to keep from going insane.
All right, maybe this shouldn’t even be a category, but these posts look at some odd aspects of living in the world, such as fear, failure, and walking around with a metaphorical stick up one’s backside.
I hope this presentation was helpful to folks interested in checking out some of the older posts. Putting it together helped me. I had no idea I’d never written a post containing the word “spleen.” Until now.
I’ll be looking for a job pretty soon. I realize that people who can give me a job will expect me to tell them what I’m qualified to do. I don’t mean that resume crap. That stuff’s almost fiction, even if it’s technically true. If my skill was begging in the gutter for burrito wrappers, I could make it sound like “acquiring recycled commercial materials in atypical urban areas.”
No, I’m talking about looking someone in the eye and telling them, in one breath, just what I can do. After which they’ll feel that if they don’t hire me they’ll live in regret and never be happy again for the rest of their lives. My challenge is that I’m a senior manager, so the things I’m capable of sound stupid. For example, I could look my prospective employer in the eye and say:
“I’m great at saying no. Really, I’m like a negativity machine.”
Based on that statement, even I wouldn’t hire me. Hell, I’d spray for me, like I was a chinch-bug.
It’s a problem.
By the way, any grammar fans may have noted that in the earlier paragraph I should have written “…the things of which I am capable sound stupid.” I didn’t do that because it doesn’t flow well. I know it’s wrong, but I offer a quote that’s been attributed to Winston Churchill:
“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
On Saturday I interrupted my musings on unemployment long enough to visit my father. I go there to talk about building things, and stupid politicians, and grilled cheese sandwiches, among other things. I also go there to write checks to pay his bills. His hands shake too much for him to write because of a raucous and unwelcome party in his cerebellum, so I help out. I’m hoping that my wife will be kind enough to write my checks when I get older. To be truthful, she writes most of them now, so things wouldn’t be that different.
My father and I found ourselves talking about job qualifications, just after we’d been discussing how much useless crap is in his attic. Right away he told me that he didn’t learn anything in college that helped him get a job, or that helped him at all in his career, for that matter. I found that discouraging. When he was still working he supervised the construction of schools and hospitals and so forth. However, in college I think he mainly knocked people down and pulled semi-larcenous pranks on the Texas A&M football team. So maybe this wasn’t entirely surprising.
We backtracked and talked about whether his military service had given him qualifications he could present to future employers. He said that had been problematic. After the Korean War his discharge papers stated that he was well-suited for any civilian job requiring a “small arms technician.” He didn’t feel that was too helpful, since it meant “move about silently and kill people.”
We agreed that it can be hard to explain what you’re qualified to do.
I guess I’ll keep working on it. I may need something more generic, like, “I don’t usually screw things up,” or, “I haven’t been killed by my own employees so far.” Maybe I can adapt one of those common sayings about success, like, “Success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” I could turn that into:
“I sweat a lot. You ought to see it.”
Or here’s another one I like. “Ninety percent of life is showing up. Nine percent is paying attention. One percent is getting laid.”
I gouged out part of my soul and hurled it into a wood chipper the other day. It was no fun, although I did get to eat pie while I did it. It happened because I’m trying to write something longer than the instructions for assembling an armoire made in Korea, and hopefully with better grammar. I’ve been racking up the word count, developing characters and making them suffer, and following my plot storyboard. Then a few days ago I wrote a scene that I adored, and I read it to my wife. That’s when it happened. After I was done, she paused and said, “It doesn’t really add anything, does it?”
Writers, like all artists, are by definition insane. They don’t perceive the world the way other people perceive it. People may or may not agree that I’m a writer, but I do have a piece of paper that says I’m crazy, so there. My wife had spoken the evident truth, which forced me to do the crazy thing and destroy those words, each one a child of my creative spirit. I wanted to make a surgical excision, but in the end I slaughtered them with all the finesse of a mustard gas attack.
I found myself a bit unmotivated after that. But motivation and inspiration should make no difference to writers. You write unless your hands have been crushed and you’ve been kicked in the jaw by a horse. So I sat at my keyboard, Diet Coke at my left hand, and discovered the Five Good Reasons Not to Write.
My tools are defective. My monitor is dusty, and it’s giving me a headache, so I’d better get the Windex. I should wipe down the kitchen counters while I’m passing through the kitchen with Windex in my hand. Oh, and Windows is telling me to install a security update, so I should do that to avoid losing all my work through insecurity. I’ll defragment my hard drive too, just to be safe.
My work environment is oppressive. The jumble of picture frames on my desk is breaking my concentration, so I should organize them. But I need to find places to put half of them, so I have to rearrange the bookshelves and move the printer. I’ll have worked up a sweat by then, so I should install the ceiling fan that’s been sitting in a box since I bought the house nine years ago.
My thinking apparatus is under-fueled. I have a headache from staring at the screen in impotence until my blood sugar drops to single digits. I need a sandwich. However, I only have ham in the fridge and am trying to watch my cholesterol, so I have to go to the store. I should also get everything else on my weekly grocery list since I’m already there.
I need to document my life. My cat’s sleeping amongst the orderly picture frames and looking cuter than any creature on Earth, including bunnies. I have to take a picture because this will never happen again. When I reach for the camera, my cat moves, so I have to wait until she reassumes a cute pose. It may take a while.
There’s this thing called the internet. For my story I need to research how expensive bribes should be in Bangkok in 1948. Wikipedia has an invaluable entry on Southeast Asia, and on Google I find a photo of elephants dressed like panda bears. That has to go on Facebook right away, and while I’m there I like a bunch of posts, wish I could dislike a bunch of posts, and post about my sandwich. Now I’m hungry for Thai food.
I like almost everybody. That’s why I hate to be around people.
I don’t mean that I like everything about everybody. That’s some kind of psychiatric illness, and I’ve already got all of those I need. And there are a few people I’d just like to stab a lot and be done with them. But I can find something to like about almost everyone, even if I just appreciate seeing my own folly in them. For example, at midnight when I’m eating my pancakes at I-HOP, maybe a guy staggers in drunk, knocks over the trash can, screams an apology at the cash register, and passes out in the booth behind me, mumbling in his sleep about some girl named Christie. I think, Yeah, I remember doing that. Hang tough, brother.
So if I like people, why don’t I want to be around them? It’s just exhausting, that’s why. Dinner with a couple of friends is pretty easy, but big herds of people wear me out. First, I’m deaf in my right ear and too vain to get a hearing aid, so I spend a lot of time trying to guess what people are saying. I’m not a good guesser, so my guesses are often a lot more colorful than what was actually said. Someone might say, “Next Saturday is the Jam and Jelly Festival,” and I’d probably guess something like, “Next Saturday is the Fast of Sweaty Genitals.” When I respond to that person, my statement will seem logical to me, but to the 20 people around me at the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party it may seem eccentric.
Second, even when I understand what people say, my immediate response tends disrupt the conversation because I say weird things. I know that will shock my friends. For example, a person may say, “My neighbor’s tree is growing over my backyard. It’s getting to be a problem.”
Then I might say, “You have sort of a Sudetenland problem. You have to hold the line with these guys, or before you know it they’re on your patio, and then they’re dive bombing your garage, and then they’re sitting around the pool with all the cute French girls drinking your wine and invading the shit out of Russia. Then you’ll have to bomb them into rubble, and then you’ll have to rebuild their house and station troops there for 50 years. So just cut the damn thing down in the middle of the night and blame it on raccoons.”
At that point everyone stops and looks at me for five or ten seconds. They’re all really uncomfortable, and then they go back to eating and drinking and talking about assassinating the president of their homeowner’s association as if I’d never spoken. All right, I just made up the assassination part, but that emphasizes the problem.
That sucks. I don’t want all those people to be uncomfortable. After all, I like them. So I try to instead say something like, “Bummer. Have you asked them to trim it? Maybe bring them a pie?” That’s an okay response, but the effort required to not talk about the Sudetenland and to instead talk about pie is fatiguing. When I come home I’m exhausted, and I have to hibernate in my cave for a few hours to recharge.
This causes problems for my wife. She likes people, too. At least she likes me, which proves she’s forgiving enough to like just about anybody. But she loves being around people. It charges her up. I suspect it’s because she’s not expending much energy to stop herself from saying whatever she’s thinking, because she isn’t thinking about the damned Sudetenland. That must be nice. But she wants to go to every let’s-drink-wine party and jam and jelly festival that comes along, and I only want to go to the birthdays of my less popular friends, attended by three guests and a blind dog. After 20 years of this she’s comfortable going to big parties by herself, which I appreciate. But it can still be awkward when she walks out of the house looking like a kid who expected a bicycle and instead got a scratchy wool hat with pom-poms and pink bunnies crucified all over it.
I do better when I have a job. When I can cut slices of cake, or hand out name tags, or calculate way too big a tip, I’m a lot happier. I don’t have to sit there guessing what people are saying. I don’t have to hold back from explaining the parallels between the shell casing ejection mechanism in automatic rifles and my dinner partner’s hemorrhoid problem.
Alas, not many social invitations specify a job. “Please join Sherri and Bob at their Baby Shower to help them celebrate the joyous upcoming birth of their daughter. You’ll be washing the dishes. Bring gloves.” That sort of invitation is sadly uncommon. So, if I don’t show up at your birthday party, please don’t be offended. It’s only because I like you.
What about you? Do you avoid public gatherings like you’d avoid syphilis, or do you hit every party as long as the guests are conscious and there’s at least one dirty glass to drink from?
I used to think I was a pretty smart guy. That was because I knew what an imaginary number was and I remembered the difference between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I didn’t think I was a genius, mind you—just pretty smart. I now realize something though. Yes, I’m fairly smart, but no, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
We have this idea that exceptionally smart people are on top of the world, but I think that’s false. We don’t generally embrace the geniuses among us and reward them with charming tidbits. Say on one hand you have a woman who engineers bridges so that they don’t fall down, and on the other hand you have a guy who bats .372 in the playoffs. Which one of them has a fan club and a Lamborghini for each day of the week?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I think that raw intelligence is a wonderful thing. If I need open heart surgery, I don’t want a surgeon who’s sitting around watching Jackass II before the operation. And smart people have helped us a lot throughout history. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein didn’t exactly spend their time counting on their toes and eating paste.
On the other hand, just last month I met the dumbest guy with a 160 IQ I ever ran across. Have you met this guy? He’s obviously brilliant, but he understands so little about the world he lives in that he’s unable to accomplish a single damned thing. If he wore barbed wire briefs to dampen his intellectual prowess, he might be better off.
Raw intellectual power is like a keyhole saw. If you need to cut a hole for a doorknob, a keyhole saw is invaluable. For a slew of specialized jobs, if you don’t have a keyhole saw you are practically paralyzed. If you don’t have a keyhole saw and instead use a different tool, like a rubber mallet, things are not going to go well.
But the great majority of jobs in your garage are not keyhole saw jobs. For example, if you try to re-wire a chandelier with your keyhole saw, no fun will be involved in the process. If you are lucky enough to have a keyhole saw, by all means keep it in your toolbox, but realize that you’ll only need it for special jobs. As any handyman knows, most of your jobs in life are best handled with duct tape and WD-40. With them you can do just about anything (doorknob installation notwithstanding).
So if raw intellect is like a keyhole saw, then what qualities are like duct tape and WD-40? Well, I’m sure everybody has their own theories about that. I personally try to understand them in terms of our distant ancestors. Considering those ancestors, I think that duct tape is the skill of working nicely with the rest of the clan so that they don’t throw you out of the cave into the snow to die. And WD-40 is paying close enough attention to the world around you so that you can hide from the saber-tooth tiger before it eats your ass.
My wife doesn’t need booze or drugs. She has a kitchen. She herself slew it and brought it home, and it gives her a bigger thrill than any intoxicant, or jewelry, or fuzzy little mammal ever born. It’s not so much the cooking she loves as it is being in the kitchen and looking at it. She likes talking about it too. She created the room over several years. She plastered the pale yellow walls. She painted the cabinets cobalt blue one winter, holding heaters next to the oil-based paint so it wouldn’t bubble and run. Michelangelo could not have been prouder of the Sistine Chapel.
One thing marred her happiness, like a serpent in her garden of good things to eat. The floor was covered by scarred, pus-colored linoleum tiles that would shame any prison camp barracks. My wife considered the matter with immense gravity, and she conceived a plan in which she would dress that floor in magnificent red tile. I approved of course. It sounded pretty, and even had I wished, I lacked the force of will to deny her. She charged out to find red tiles of the particular shade she wanted, but no one—no one—sold them then. Red tiles were out of fashion, and they were expensive to make. If no one wanted to buy them, then no one was going to make them.
I found that disappointing, because I knew she really wanted them. I suggested nice brown tiles, or maybe terra cotta. My wife was unconvinced. Perhaps I wanted to just smear the kitchen floor with excrement and let it dry instead? I recognized this was sarcasm, and I recognized she hadn’t given up. I’d seen her like this before. She was going to have red tiles, or every other person on earth was going to die.
Sometime later, as we watched television, we saw a Pier One commercial. She shot up from the couch like Old Faithful and said, “There! Those are my red tiles!” The commercial depicted the inside of a Pier One store, and indeed it sported red floor tiles of just the shade she wanted. I breathed a warning that this was a set for the commercial and not an actual store, but that didn’t matter one damn bit. These tiles existed, and if they existed then she could find them. And when we walked into a Pier One store a bit later, she proved me wrong by pointing at the floor, which was covered with her tiles. I acknowledged my lack of faith.
My wife asked the register clerk where she could buy the floor tiles in the store. The clerk asked if we were serious, and my wife affirmed that we were. The clerk said that she didn’t think we could buy them, and she turned away to rearrange some boxes. I’m sure she hoped we’d go away and ask somebody else if we could buy the store’s heating unit or something. My wife asked again, louder, and the clerk took two steps away from us and paged the manager.
The manager handled this better, pulling on a fake smile and confirming that we couldn’t buy this tile. My wife asked how the manager knew this. Had anyone else ever asked to buy the tile before? The manager said he was positive that no one had ever asked that, and his fake smile kind of melted like that oil-based paint on our cabinets. She asked where the tile came from. The manager, who must have gotten high marks in conduct as a boy, said he didn’t know. She asked him who he would ask if he needed to find out, and just like the register clerk he punted. He called his district manager. And he put my wife on the phone.
I could only hear my wife’s side of the phone conversation, but it sounded like this:
“Where can I buy the red floor tiles you use in the stores?”
Indistinct buzzing of a voice on the other end of the line.
“Yes, I’m serious.”
Buzz buzz buzz.
“Well somebody has to know where they come from. Can’t you call someone?”
“Oh, I’m sure you can. Who buys these tiles?”
Buzz BUZZ BUZZ buzz BUZZ.
“I’m certain that’s true, but I bet you can figure it out if you think about it.”
Buzz… buzz buzz buzz… buzz.
“Great, could you please give me their number?”
Buzz buzz buzz buzz!
“Okay, could call them for me? I’ll call you back this afternoon to see if you reached them.”
Buzz… buzz buzz… bz-bz-bz, bz-bz-bz, bz-bz-bz-bz.
“Thank you! Goodbye.”
My wife turned to me, and I took a step back. She looked like a lioness that had just dragged down a wildebeest. She said, “Let’s go home. I have the number of the people at Pier One who build the stores.”
Over the next three days my wife talked to the following people:
-A secretary in the Pier One Capital Projects division who bonded with my wife over herb growing techniques.
-A manager in the Property Development and Renovation office who gave my wife anything she wanted because he had to go pee.
-An Executive Vice President in the Store Construction branch who thought the whole thing was so damned funny that he gave her the buyer’s number and wished her luck.
-A buyer in Purchasing who was perplexed by how my wife got her phone number, so she coughed up the name of the tile company before she really thought about it.
I would have given up at least three times before this point and taken the “smear shit on the floor” option. My wife still looked neatly pressed and determined. Then the Pier One buyer mentioned that the tile company was situated about fifteen minutes from our house. My wife was within striking distance of her prey.
A nice sales rep at the tile company told her that this tile was made exclusively for Pier One. No, he couldn’t sell it to anyone else. No, they didn’t make exceptions. No, there was nothing he could do. No, there wasn’t anyone he could call, or anyone else she could talk to. No, he didn’t like to grow herbs.
I felt bad for my wife. She’d come so far, just to be crushed now. Then she asked the sales rep, “Isn’t there anything at all like this that you can sell me?” And the sales rep offered to sell her “seconds.” These were tiles that didn’t pass inspection because their color might be slightly off or something. And they were cheaper than any other tile we’d looked at. They may have been cheaper than shit. She almost broke her jaw saying yes.
My wife borrowed a truck and picked up the tile. We started opening boxes and realized why we got them so cheap. Twenty-four boxes were about the right color and size, but twelve boxes were two shades darker and an eighth of an inch larger. There was no way we could lay this tile and make it look decent. I wilted. She just puffed up to even more impressive dimensions and sat in the kitchen with a cup of Earl Gray tea and her thoughts.
The next day my wife called a friend who’s an interior designer, and she explained our problem. Our friend laughed as if this was no harder a problem than a plaid shirt with a striped tie. She directed us to a tile man she said could lay this tile and make it look like it was meant to have different colors and sizes, rather than like it was designed by a baboon smoking dope. And within a few days the tile man had done this thing, and my wife luxuriated in the kitchen she’d wanted, striven for, and smashed through every conceivable obstacle to secure.
My wife has convinced me forever that if she really wants something, she will attain it with the inevitability of space junk falling into Earth’s gravity well. In fact, if the eccentric scientists of the world possessed her determination, the Loch Ness Monster would be jumping through fiery hoops at Sea World right now. And this is a good thing. Maybe I can convince her to really, really want an in-home theater, a Ferrari, and a recreational flamethrower.